President Joe Biden’s land and water conservation plan, released Thursday under the title “America the Beautiful,” highlights a preference for locally driven initiatives, tribal sovereignty, job creation, respect for private property rights and reliance on science — all things that seem tailored to blunt the concerns of the West’s conservative political leaders who reflexively chafe at development restrictions on public lands.
Under one of his signature campaign pledges, Biden intends to protect 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030, an initiative known as “30 by 30.”
It’s easy to imagine the administration looking to Utah and other Westerns states, which harbor more than their fair share of undeveloped beautiful landscapes, to fulfill this pledge. Eastern states have less publicly owned, uncompromised land and water.
The plan released Thursday offers a framework for achieving that ambitious goal, which is seen as a global benchmark for preserving functioning ecosystems.
“The President’s challenge is a call to action to support locally led conservation and restoration efforts of all kinds and all over America, wherever communities wish to safeguard the lands and waters they know and love,” states an accompanying letter signed by four cabinet members, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “Doing so will not only protect our lands and waters but also boost our economy and support jobs nationwide.”
Of course, the United States already protects vast reaches of scenic lands and waters, perhaps more than any other nation. These protections come in the form of national monuments and parks, wildlife refuges, special conservation areas, conservation easements, wilderness and wilderness study areas and wild and scenic rivers. Such designations abound in Utah, and for many conservative political leaders, the last thing Utah needs is more, especially with Biden expected to restore the two national monuments that President Donald Trump reduced by 2 million acres in 2017.
While concerned about some of the plan’s aspects, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he appreciated the administration’s willingness to include local input and reward ranchers for good stewardship.
“The details of how the plan will be implemented are critically important and we’re looking forward to learning more as we engage further with his administration,” Cox said. “We would like to see the president acknowledge our state’s commitment to public lands and conservation. We believe active management of our landscapes, rather than a hands-off approach, is often the best way to protect and conserve our lands, water and wildlife.”
Salt Lake City’s Erin Mendenhall is among 70 mayors to sign a March 3 letter endorsing 30 by 30.
“Positive, bipartisan, community-driven conservation efforts are already happening in our community,” the letter states. “I pledge to continue to pull stakeholders together — recognizing this goal will take action at the neighborhood, community, state, and national level. Together, we can and must protect nature for generations to come.”
Cox said Utah is a leader in protecting natural resources “in a balanced way” and claimed that more than 30% of Utah’s 54 million acres already enjoy protected status.
So, are 16.3 million acres, or 30%, of Utah protected?
Not even close, according to Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“One reason is because Utah politicians have a long history of opposing land conservation,” he said. “For example, fighting the reestablishment of the Grand Staircase and Bears Ears,” the monuments Trump shrunk.
Much of the land the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service oversees in Utah, making up more than half the state, remains open to oil and gas leasing. And there are billions of tons of coal under the lands Trump carved out of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Those resources should remain undeveloped if the nation expects to meet emissions-reduction targets, Groene argued.
“In the face of climate change and mass extinction, we need bold action to move forward to truly protect 30% of the land base of the United States,” he said. “America the Beautiful is a step in that direction and we’re encouraged by that.”
SUWA is renewing its longstanding push to convince Congress to designate 9 million acres of wilderness in Utah. Groene said America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, which could soon be reintroduced into Congress, could go a long way toward achieving Biden’s goals.
“Public lands will play an incredibly important role in getting to 30 by 30 and we are encouraged by the leadership from Secretary Haaland and President Biden, because it’s been leadership that’s frankly always been lacking here in Utah from our politicians,” Groene said. “If we want this to be a habitable planet that is sustainable for humans and other life, we need to take bold action and stop playing games.”
Signing America the Beautiful were Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality. It outlines eight principals for achieving the 30 by 30 goals, leading with using a “collaborative and inclusive approach” to conserve lands for the benefit of all people.
“The conservation value of a particular place should not be measured solely in biological terms, but also by its capacity to purify drinking water, to cool the air for a nearby neighborhood, to provide a safe outdoor escape for a community that is park-deprived, to help America prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change, or to unlock access for outdoor recreation, hunting, angling, and beyond,” the plan states.
Its first steps are to inventory the land and water already managed for conservation and restoration, called the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas. That multiagency effort will be led by the U.S. Geological Survey (Interior), Natural Resources Conservation Service (Agriculture) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Commerce).